There is a plethora of outdoor adventure opportunity ideas in Chattanooga, from hiking to biking to climbing to paddling the Tennessee River or soaring high above the best town ever from a colorful hang glider. Have you considered a bird’s eye view of what makes Chattanooga the outdoor mecca that it is?
The possibilities of experiencing our town can seem endless, if not overwhelming, for the adventure seeker, much like the proverbial kid at the candy counter. Where to begin with all of the fantastic options? But what about the adventure option not so easily seen, the out-of-obvious-sight one, but the one that runs rampant throughout the region, often hidden in plain sight under the area’s varied vegetation and terrain, the option known as caving, or is it spelunking?
To understand why these terms are often used interchangeably, allowing for confusion, a vocabulary lesson is warranted. In the United States and Canada, caving refers to the recreational exploring of wild, usually non-commercialized, cave systems, while the term spelunking, in contrast, refers to the scientific exploration of wild, usually non-commercialized cave systems. Spelunking arises from the world of speleology, which is the scientific study of caves and the cave environment. So, if the goal were to explore a cave recreationally, the term caving would be the more appropriate term to use. If the goal is to scientifically study a cave, which usually results in some kind of formal publication as a result of the exploration, then the term spelunking is the more appropriate term choice. By the way, potholing is the British term for the sport of cave exploration.
Confused yet? No matter what term is used for cave exploration, be warned and don’t let the adjective recreational fool you into a false sense of comfort. Depending on the cave being visited, the challenges will be varied, from complete absence of light beyond the cave entrance to uneven and often quickly changing terrain, pitches, squeezes and water hazards. Caving is a specialized sport that requires training, attention to detail, preparedness and lots of practice with an experienced caver(s) before ever stepping foot into a wild, non-commercialized cave.
There are over 17,000 known caves in the southeastern United States, with upwards of 7,000 of those caves located within an hour’s drive of Chattanooga in the region known as TAG, the acronym for the tri-state area of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Thanks to the unique geography along the western side of the Appalachian mountain range, a vast and varied network of caves has been created under the mountains; this cave system entices caving enthusiasts from near and far to experience some of nature’s coolest underground playgrounds.
And just how does this area’s geography give rise to such a preponderance of caves? Caves form as a result of water wearing away rock, but not just any rock will do. It has to be a rock type that dissolves in water. Some of the geological composition of the region is a combination of sandstone stacked on limestone. Sandstone does not dissolve in water, but limestone does, so eons ago, when water started rolling down the mountains, which are made of sandstone, it reached the cracks and crevices in the limestone mountain bed, and, as time went on, huge voids resulted as the limestone eroded away and cave systems appeared. Trivia tidbit, technically speaking: a cave is a space large enough for a human to enter, and is deeper than its opening is wide, so not all openings in the ground are caves, but all caves are openings in the ground!
Caving is a thrilling sport that offers a glimpse into the hidden world of extremes, a world cut off from the outside world, for the most part. Animals living in total darkness resemble creatures from the latest sci-fi movie, odd and amazing geological formations known as stalactites and stalagmites abound everywhere and mind-bogglingly enormous rooms, some of nature’s finest architecture, are just a few of the exotic discoveries afforded by caving. Some of the not so exotic findings, such as dilapidated moonshine stills, makeshift ladders and trash, are manmade, remnants of past explorers or dwellers in the hidden underworld. Many caves even have an historical significance. Case in point, Lookout Mountain Cave, aka Lookout Mountain Caverns, is the second longest cave known in Chattanooga and was once owned by Robert Cravens. During the Civil War, Cravens contracted with the Confederate Government and rented his cave to the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, which mined saltpeter, a main ingredient in gunpowder (black powder) for delivery to the troops.
Caving is also a sport immune to bad weather. Temperature of the caves in the TAG region maintains a consistent 55 to 60 degrees, making it an excellent outdoor adventure on which to embark on those extremely hot, cold or yucky weather days. Caving can be a perfect activity for any weather.
If the thought of squeezing through tiny spaces in the dark takes your breath away, then caving may not be for you, but for those whose heart doesn’t skip a beat, here are two subspecialties of caving: vertical caving and cave diving. How’s your sympathetic nervous system holding up now with those visuals?
Chattanooga has numerous resources for the individual who is intrigued by the notion of adding caving to his or her repertoire of outdoor adventures skillset. For the inexperienced, guided cave tours at commercial caverns or through local outfitters are an excellent introduction to the world of caving and provide the gamut of experiences, from easy walks on wide walkways to getting down and dirty on a wild cave adventure.
No matter what you call it, exploring caves is a physically challenging, mind stimulating, visually rewarding heck of a good time. Now, the only question left to ask is, will you keep it nice and clean, or will you get down and dirty?
by JD Harper is a local author, tour guide for Sweet Magnolia Tours, co-founder of Chattanooga Youth Gallery (CYG) and a physical therapist. Glint, her debut novel, is set in Chattanooga amid its rich Civil War history and rock climbing culture.